The deplorables fight backby Maurice Glasman / March 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
©Matt Herring/Getty Images The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, by David Goodhart (Hurst, £20) Buy this book on Amazon There are many reasons to be grateful to David Goodhart. He established this magazine in 1995 and was its editor until 2010. It was a sterile period of political and cultural thought, with a Labour Government uncritically cheerleading globalisation, and a Conservative Party that could not reconcile itself to the generosity of the times. Prospect offered a gentle form of intellectual dissent in these years of “progressive” hegemony—daring to suggest that, perhaps, things don’t only get better. It probed particularly on the question of exactly who benefits from economic success, and it grappled with the thorny but then-unfashionable politics of identity. Goodhart cut through the stupor with his 2004 Prospect cover-essay entitled “Too Diverse?” He questioned the orthodoxy that immigration and multiculturalism were unconditional benefits. Approaching the issue from an essentially Fabian perspective, he argued that a too culturally diverse nation would undermine the national solidarity required to sustain a tax-funded welfare state. For this he was denounced in forceful—even hateful—terms by some liberals, confirming the paradox that there is no one more exclusive than the person who upholds inclusivity. The second reason to be grateful to David Goodhart is that he did not repent his position. Rather, he doubled down on explaining to liberals why so many working-class and poorer people were disaffected with the political consensus. In 2013 he published The British Dream, which engaged more deeply with the connected themes of mass migration, globalisation, national identity and the gaps in progressive thought. His bravery has been vindicated by recent political events—most notably the Brexit vote last year, in which the relationship between democracy and immigration was salient. The Road to Somewhere is his latest attempt to offer therapeutic analysis to traumatised progressives who, despite believing they were on the right side of history, were on the wrong end of the referendum result. (As a side note it is strange, as a former magazine editor, that he has such a tin ear for book titles and further, that his prose at times is more reminiscent of the social sciences than of popular journalism.) This meticulously researched book, which draws on original data concerning social attitudes, divides Britain into two tribes: the Anywheres and the Somewheres. The Anywheres are liberal, highly literate, mobile, progressive and feel no particular attachment to place or to nation. For over 50 years they have dominated the political agenda, with their support for an economic and social liberalism based on individual rights and an open society. Overwhelmingly, they are university graduates whose lives are characterised by social mobility. Career progression, tolerance and social independence are their core values. In short, they tend not to live close to mum. In contrast, the Somewheres live close to where they were born, work in the private sector in insecure jobs, usually have not been to university, but do feel part of a national community from which they consider they are being increasingly excluded. One of the best chapters in the book is called “The Knowledge Economy and Economic Demoralisation,” in which the triumph of the Anywheres is articulated well. For the past 50 years there has been a sharp polarisation within the labour market with increasing debt and stagnant wages at the lower end. Those dependent on a modest income, without inherited assets to ease their way, found themselves sinking over several decades. It began in the 1970s with inflation, then the accumulation of public and private debt that culminated in the 2008 crash. The proliferation of payday loan shops on high streets is just one visible marker of how bad things have got for this group. Governments of all stripes unanimously assumed that although there would be a decline in manual jobs there would be an increase in transferable skills. Goodhart recalls that as Chancellor Gordon Brown predicted in 2006 that there would only be 600,000 low-skilled jobs by 2020. In reality, the number of such jobs was actually growing at the time—running well into the millions, and has continued to grow since. No matter: a liberal consensus had developed that what was emerging was a “knowledge economy,” where the knowledge in question was general, abstract and transferable. This developed into the idea of the “creative economy,” in which the mobile and highly literate would be the basis of productivity growth and prosperity. State policy was based on increasing their number. Goodhart’s figures tell the story. In 1984 there were 70 universities; now there are 170. Fourteen per cent of youngsters went to university then; now it is 48 per cent. In 1984, the turnover of the higher education sector was in today’s money £7bn; now it is £33bn. “The left behind are the poor, but especially the white British poor, without the ambition and support networks of some immigrants” The channelling of resources into higher education was paralleled by the collapse of the apprenticeship system: the number of apprentices fell from 250,000 in 1973 to 50,000 in 2016. We now have 1.4m undergraduates. The final humiliation of vocational training was the transformation of 35 polytechnics into universities in 1992. Yet despite increases in funding and multiple reforms, there has been little improvement in the educational attainment of the bottom quarter of school students: 17 per cent of students leave school functionally illiterate and 22 per cent are effectively innumerate. These figures are comparable with Albania. As a criteria for success in our modern economy—and by extension our economically fixated society—cognitive ability overshadowed character, competence or experience. The state coped with globalisation not through the reproduction of skills but through the generalisation of knowledge. The result has been a polarised labour market that has created our polarised politics. This is the political economy that produced Brexit, a rare vote where the losers won. We on the left thought that after the financial crisis, politics would break in our favour. That hasn’t happened. Rather, in reaction against the soulless progressivism which has warped left-wing politics over the last decade, a combination of ethnic nationalism and austerity economics now dominate, with social democrats losing across Europe. Progressive governments are no longer shaping the future. Why? Rightly, Goodhart points out just how little regard avowedly liberal politicians had for the “left behind” in our country. This describes the poor, especially the white British poor, without the ambition and social support networks of some immigrants. (Though poor ethnic minorities face the additional problem of racial discrimination.) They were richer than the global poor, with better welfare and access to education. In comparative terms, they had little to complain about. Yet they were far from grateful. But Goodhart’s claim that a social contract between the rulers and the ruled has been broken is awry. For it was not a contract that was broken but a covenant that involved an inter-generational inheritance. The combination of mass immigration, technological change and globalisation meant that the British working-class no longer saw itself as part of a special nation. They felt robbed of a welfare state that gave them special privileges because they and their forebears had created it. The problem for Labour is that this sense of dispossession applies to the party itself. Labour always had its Anywheres, but the Somewheres really mattered. Clement Attlee’s working-class cabinet ministers Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison embodied this. The rupture of Labour from people who describe themselves as working class, as Anywheres have grown in number and clout, is the important story described in this book. It is wrong, however, to describe this as populist in any insurgent sense. Among those who voted Brexit, there is still support for Parliament and its traditional sovereignty, for the monarchy, for the NHS, and for the Union. As the Copeland by-election showed, they prefer to vote Conservative rather than Ukip, and as the Stoke result indicates, many will grudgingly vote Labour rather than Ukip. What they wish to see is a democratic politics that represents their interests. If this is populism then it is of a muted English variety that wishes to see the renewal of national institutions and a recognition that family, place and work—the things that matter to them—matter to their rulers. Basket case: Hillary Clinton and other liberal voices have been eclipsed ©Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images And this draws attention to how strangely ahistorical the progressive mind has become. Since Aristotle, it has been understood that people are social beings, who inherit a language, parents, set of relationships and doxa, or common sense, which is reproduced in their common institutions. Some understanding of that tradition is an important part of the meaning of people’s lives—that their relationships matter greatly, that where they are from and the language they speak is part of who they are, and that politics is a public manifestation of that shared identity always used to be part of the common understanding of politics. Britain recognised the importance of the distinctive religious and cultural practices brought by immigrants: French Huguenots, Jews and then West Indian Christians, South Asian Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. The authorities did not demand religious conformity. But this led to a lack of emphasis on a common life and a politics of the common good, through which a new political settlement could be forged. It is only in the past 50 years, and most intensely in the last two decades, that the notion that such ideas are conservative has taken hold. Old Labour’s international solidarity did not require the abandonment of the national democratic inheritance. But today’s left-liberals simply do not understand the traditional commitment to earning and belonging. This puts them at odds with how people understand themselves. We are beings with a tendency to attachment; in order to be open to the environment our bodies must also be closed; and in physics, atoms have a tendency to cluster. And yet in politics an ultra-liberal ideal developed that belonging, attachment and sociability, reinforced by institutions, should be replaced by the almost unmediated movement of people through space. Goodhart has some suggestions in the final chapter for how the people Hillary Clinton described as a “basket of deplorables” who were “irredeemable” might be treated as equal citizens. But the plan is for more piecemeal social engineering, rather than fundamental structural changes. He urges introducing ID cards, building HS3 across the north rather than HS2, and giving more emergency welfare support to areas of large immigration flows. The modest scale is disappointing. One interpretation of the Brexit vote is that the 52 per cent who voted leave made a distinction between free trade and free movement, and rejected the idea that people were to be treated as commodities by the market and as administrative units by the state. A politics of the common good would recognise that the educated rich have gone too far and too fast in pursuing a vision that did not have the consent of many people who did not consider themselves losers and left behind, but the heartbeat of our nation. We should be thinking of creating Royal Colleges for social carers, for cooks, for security guards and cleaners. We should be thinking about closing half our universities and creating instead vocational colleges that honour practical work and serve as institutions of ethical self-regulation. We might even think of putting medical schools and law degrees in those colleges. We should be thinking about restoring the counties and cities of England as self-governing polities. It is not the least merit of Goodhart’s book that he enables us to imagine Brexit as a moment that could just prove to be the start of a national renewal.